...But there was too a sense of her being slightly more removed from the common grain of humanity than were most MPs, a feeling that was encapsulated by what appeared to be a complete absence of humour. In a 1979 episode of the sitcom Fawlty Towers, even before she became prime minister, a character comments on the guide-book What’s On in Torquay that it must be ‘one of the world’s shortest books – like The Wit of Margaret Thatcher’. It was a judgement that survived her choice of a sketch by American comedian Bob Newhart as one of her Desert Island Discs, and one that even her closest allies were to confirm: ‘One has to remember that she has little sense of humour,’ noted William Whitelaw, her deputy leader, ‘and therefore if you have a sense of humour, you are always suspect with her.’
But then Britain in 1979 was not necessarily in the mood for a jokey politician, or even for one as relaxed and unflappable as Callaghan; for many people, the country had felt for years as if it were stumbling into chaos, and the British tendency to mock, its willingness to sink giggling into the sea, was looking as though it might be part of the problem, not the solution. The Labour peer Lord Longford found himself secretly agreeing when someone suggested, in the context of Thatcher’s lack of humour, that ‘we in Britain had been suffering from an excess of humour’, and he was not alone.
If the nation was agreed on her seriousness, it was less certain about her sex appeal, though – again inevitably – it was very much a topic of conversation in a world where female politicians were few and far between. (The number of women MPs actually went down in the 1979 election from twenty-seven to just nineteen, representing 3 per cent of the House of Commons.) Not many were prepared to agree entirely with Tory MP Alan Clark’s 1980 assessment – ‘she is so beautiful,’ he drooled, ‘quite bewitching, as Eva Peron must have been’ – but there was an appeal that, for some men at least, couldn’t quite be pinned down. ‘Cette femme Thatcher! Elle a les yeux de Caligule, mais elle a la bouche de Marilyn Monroe,’ as French president François Mitterrand famously claimed. Or, in the words of Sue Townsend’s schoolboy creation, Adrian Mole: ‘She has got eyes like a psychotic killer, but a voice like a gentle person. It’s a bit confusing.’ Perhaps more common was the opinion of Colin Dexter’s detective, Inspector Morse; encountering a ‘grimly visaged, tight-lipped’ Scottish ward sister, he characterizes her as ‘an ideal of humourless efficiency: a sort of Calvinistic Thatcherite’.
Images of matrons, as well as governesses and nannies, became commonplace.
It was possibly no coincidence that the arrival of Thatcher in Downing Street was followed swiftly by the appearance of several female authority figures on television.
After several successful books on training animals, for example, Barbara Woodhouse became a national star in 1980 with the series Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way, intimidating dumb creatures (and their pets) with a voice once described as ‘Joyce Grenfell crossed with Lady Bracknell’. She was not, however, without her critics, particularly when she endorsed the use of choke-chains that were disapproved of by the RSPCA – like Thatcher, she was sometimes seen as being too strict, and not entirely in step with more modern liberal ways.
Then there was Mrs McClusky, who took over as head teacher in the children’s school soap Grange Hill. Her advent too attracted controversy as the prices went up in the tuck shop, thanks to a new tax known as the School Surcharge, and as she responded to a spate of vandalism and arson by introducing a prefect system, despite complaints that it was a draconian measure. When two boys are caught running an unauthorized cake stall on school premises, they are given a detention with the task of writing an essay on ‘the problems of private enterprise in an authoritarian society’. Even the nightmarish, over-controlling mother of Ronnie Corbett’s character in the sitcom Sorry! (played by Barbara Lott) had a hint of Thatcher about her.
And, after years of all-male fictional police forces, two series in 1980 finally broke the mould. Jill Gascoine appeared as Detective Inspector Maggie Forbes in the ITV drama The Gentle Touch, followed a few months later by the BBC entry in the field, Juliet Bravo. Set in a small northern town decimated by the closure of its mills, Juliet Bravo starred Stephanie Turner as Jean Darblay, a uniformed officer whose husband has been made redundant but who finds herself promoted to Inspector. ‘Yours is a very important appointment, Jean. Very few women in England are running a town like this,’ her superior tells her, adding: ‘There are quite a few around who’d be pleased to see you fail. In any way.’
The same warning could have been applied to Thatcher...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2010